In 2015, digital technology is omnipresent. Nearly everyone in America either owns or has easy access to a computer, laptop, tablet, smartphone or other digital device. As a result, we now have endless access to information, entertainment and social interaction—with much of that material and interconnectivity being sexual in nature. (Research reveals that roughly 13% of all Internet searches are sex-related.1)
For the vast majority of people, this is not an issue. They are able to play with and enjoy sexnology in healthy ways, without becoming addicted or experiencing negative consequences, just as most people are able to enjoy alcohol without experiencing major problems. However, for people vulnerable to addiction and psychological disorders (usually thanks to a combination of genetic and early-life environmental factors2), sexnology is as much a danger zone as any other potential addiction.
In my psychotherapeutic practice, which specializes in sexual addiction and other intimacy disorders, I first noticed that technology was causing serious problems in the mid-1990s. In response, I co-wrote the first book on the topic, Cybersex Exposed, published in 2001. That now outdated book was followed this January with an entirely new book on cybersex addiction, Always Turned On, co-authored with my friend and colleague Jennifer Schneider, MD, PhD.
Prior to the mid-1990s, my sexually addicted clients were mostly hooked on real-world sexuality—serial affairs, prostitutes, sex clubs, adult movies, etc., plus the occasional guy addicted to phone sex (the old-fashioned phone that plugged into the wall). Then, when home computers and the Internet came along, my clients were suddenly and primarily engaging in tech-driven sexuality. This trend continues unabated, with current-day sex addicts hooked on digital pornography, virtual sex games, webcam sex, hookup apps, and whatever else R&D departments can dream up.
Furthermore, as both scientific research and anyone who’s been treating sex addicts for more than a decade can tell you, with each new sexnological advance we see more people who are concerned about sexual addiction. Consider that studies conducted in the 1980s (pre-Internet) generally suggested that anywhere from 3 to 5% of the adult male population was sexually addicted.3 By 1999, that percentage had approximately doubled, to 8.5%.4 We don’t have an updated percentage today, but anecdotal evidence strongly suggests the number is still climbing.
It is clear that digital technology both leads to and facilitates sexual addiction. In short, as digital technology has increased our highly affordable and mostly anonymous access to potentially addictive sexual imagery, activity and partners, it also has increased our chances of becoming sexually addicted. If you need another measurement, consider that in 1999 there were approximately 25 clinicians specializing in the treatment of sexual addiction, whereas today there are more than 2,000 certified sex addiction therapists.
Without a doubt, online porn is the “industry leader” when it comes to modern-day sexual addiction. In their 2012 book on human sexuality, A Billion Wicked Thoughts, researchers Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam state, “In 1991, the year the World Wide Web went online, there were fewer than 90 different adult magazines published in America, and you’d have been hard-pressed to find a newsstand that carried more than a dozen. Just six years later, in 1997, there were about 900 pornography sites on the Web. Today, the filtering software CYBERsitter blocks 2.5 million adult Web sites.”1
Other research suggests that 12% of all websites are pornographic in nature.5 And frankly, the amount of mostly free online porn that is currently available increases by the minute, thanks primarily to user-generated imagery (sexts, webcam mutual masturbation sessions, etc.) Put simply, pornography of every ilk is now available to anyone, anytime, on almost any digital device. And the barriers to accessing online porn that once existed—cost, proof of age, etc.—are no longer in play. Today, all a person who’s interested in porn needs to do is find a porn site and click a button that says “Yes, I’m 18.”
If you’re skeptical about the ubiquity of online porn, consider the tribulations of Canadian researcher Simon Lajeunesse, who was stymied in attempts to study the effects of porn on adolescent males because he couldn’t find any young males who weren’t already porn users.6 Without a control group, there was no way to make comparisons. And it’s not just boys who are accessing porn. A 2008 study (2008 was at the very start of the online porn boom) found that 92% of adolescent boys and 62% of adolescent girls had viewed online erotica.7 Furthermore, pre-adolescents also are looking; some estimates now place the average age of first porn use at 11 years.8 When we consider that “age of first use” is a proven risk factor for addiction9, is it any wonder that sexual addiction is on the rise?
Of course, pornography is merely the tip of the sexnological iceberg. In today’s world it is possible to meet someone on a dating site or a hookup app, to flirt with that person via text and sext, to have sex with that person via webcam and teledildonic devices, and to brag about this hot new relationship on social media—all without ever being in the same room.
Hookup apps in particular are problematic for sex addicts. They’re like crack cocaine for those seeking in-the-flesh encounters because they present an entire universe of readily available potential sexual partners—helpfully arranged, thanks to geo-locating software, from nearest to farthest away. A person’s marital status, hobbies, job, religion, goals and world view don’t matter on hookup apps, because they are all about the quick encounter. No muss, no fuss; just the sex, thank you very much. Many sex addicts post profiles on dozens of hookup apps, staying logged in to all of them 24/7 and checking them constantly. Sometimes they’re looking for the next sexual encounter before they’re done with the current one.
Keep in perspective
It is important to state that although sexnology does facilitate and drive sexual addiction, it does not cause sexual addiction. Again, most healthy people are able to use porn, hookup apps and the like in non-compulsive and life-affirming ways. They do not become addicted, and they do not experience significant negative consequences.
However, individuals who are predisposed to addiction, impulsivity, compulsivity, depression, anxiety and the like might also struggle with an addiction to sexnology, just as they might struggle with alcohol, drugs, gambling or any other potentially addictive substance or activity. As such, the growing availability of digitized sexual content and partners doesn’t increase the likelihood that these individuals will struggle in life. It merely increases the likelihood that their struggles will be sexual in nature.
Robert Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S, is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development at Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. His new book with co-author Jennifer Schneider, MD, PhD, is Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age. For more information, visit his website.
1. Ogas O, Gaddam S. A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet Tells Us About Sexual Relationships. London: Plume; 2012.
2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drugs, brains, and behavior, 2007. Retrieved from www.drugabuse.gov/publications/topics-in-brief/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction. Clay SW. Risk factors for addiction. Osteopath Fam Physician 2010;2:41-5.
3. Carnes P. Contrary to Love: Helping the Sexual Addict. Center City, Minn.: Hazelden Publishing; 1989.
4. Cooper A, Putman DE, Planchon LA, et al. Online sexual compulsivity: getting tangled in the net. Sex Addict Compulsiv 1999;6:79-104.
5. Damania D. Internet pornography statistics. Retrieved May 28, 2014 from http://thedinfographics.com/2011/12/23/internet-pornography-statistics/.
6. Liew J. All men watch porn, scientists find. Retrieved Sept. 25, 2014 from www.telegraph.co.uk/women/sex/6709646/All-men-watch-porn-scientists-find.html.
7. Sabina C, Wolak J, Finkelhor D. The nature and dynamics of Internet pornography exposure for youth. Cyberpsychol Behav 2008;11:691-3.
8. Ropelato J. Internet pornography statistics. Retrieved Jan. 16, 2015 from www.ministryoftruth.me.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/IFR2013.pdf.
9. Odgers CL, Caspi A, Nagin DS, et al. Is it important to prevent early exposure to drugs and alcohol among adolescents? Psychol Sci 2008;19:1037-44.